Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Voices from 1976

My second cousin Mark Forman likes to restore tapes and convert them to the digital age. Music...and spoken word. I had no idea what his hobbies were until this week when he sent me an 18 minute tape of an interview he had with my grandmother 35 years ago.

I burst into tears listening to her voice. It all comes back. I forwarded the digital mp3 file to my daughters with this note:

In 1976 I flew back to New York from Minneapolis because I could tell my grandmother, Rose Bernstein Zuckerman, was starting to get a little forgetful, a little lost. I was 20. She was 80. My mother had died two years earlier and going Far Away had seemed like a good way to cope. It wasn't.  I hadn't liked the twin cities much at all. Too damn cold. And the weather was worse. I was happy to get back to Stony Brook and Brooklyn.

My 2nd cousin Mark Forman taped an interview with Rose, he was 21. He wanted to know about her father (his and my great-grandfather Joe Bernstein) who sold booze during prohibition. He was writing a screenplay about rum runners. As you can tell, Mark was eager to hear that Joe was a tough and wild gangster (on the prowl with guys whose nick-names ended in "the horse"), but my grandmother said that wasn't quite so. She had a point. He was a liquor salesman who had been thrown into the black market.

Rose tended to see her father in the glow of her own tastes, her version of him was far more elegant, refined, and uh, white-washed, then the versions her sisters told. But even so, here are some family stories. In my grandmother's cultured voice. Now you can hear what she sounded like too.

Imagine her serving Mark with the delicate spode china I now have. She would be wearing her Chanel No. 5 perfume. Just a bit. The round table in her living room would have a starched and elegant tablecloth embroidered with something seasonal, fall leaves or spring buds. The view through her apartment window would be of Brooklyn single family houses with tiny lawns, she lived on the tenement side of Newkirk Avenue. Her dentures don't quite fit properly. Her voice gets more Brooklyn when she gets excited. But she pronounces my name, Claauuuuuudia, just as I have told you she did. Very grandly.

Here, meet your great-grandmother.

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